Encouraging Diversity And Building A Sustainable Business

Sri Lanka’s geographic location in the Indian Ocean, where marine life is abundant and provides a huge source of seafood and livelihood means to large communities; is clearly a blessing for the country, opines Timothy O’Reilly – Managing Director/Owner of Taprobane Seafoods (TSF).

Communities in the northern areas of Sri Lanka have been marginalized for over three decades and are just beginning to rebuild their lives along with a large part of Sri Lanka that will also add to the holistic development of the entire country.

Yet as Timothy O’Reilly discusses in ‘The Ernest Interview with Ernest Jacobs’, livelihoods of the northern fisher folk, the sustainable management of marine resources and both the maritime and economic sovereignty of Sri Lanka is in dire straits, as thousands of Indian trawlers persistently invade Sri Lankan waters every day.


Q:  It’s a long distance from New Zealand to Sri Lanka. What is your business about and why did you decide to invest in this business in Sri Lanka?

A: Taprobane Seafoods (TSF) is involved in seafood processing, we are a BOI approved multinational company. I have been fortunate enough to have lived and worked throughout Asia for more than 20 years. For much of that time I worked for an American multinational company, in charge of business development and operations. During this time I assessed the business potential in Sri Lanka, but due to the internal conflict investing in a new business venture was not possible. In 2010 I returned to Sri Lanka and was lucky enough to meet my business partner Dilan Fernando Director of Manisha (PVT) LTD. Within three months we had started Taprobane Seafoods (PVT) LTD.


Q: What are some of the key milestones you have crossed since investing in Sri Lanka?

A:  As a business, financial achievements are important. Without good growth and profits our business would fail. Important milestones in our business development include being the first Sri Lankan seafood company to open our own processing factories in Mannar, Killinochchi, and Jaffna in 2011/2012, at a time when the business environment and infrastructure where very challenging to new investments. Another important milestone was increasing our workforce to over 1,000 workers. 85% of our staff are women, employed in the factory as well as in key leadership and management position within the company.


Q:  How would you asses the quality of staff you have recruited and their interest in growing the business that employs them day by day?

A:  It’s been amazing. Sri Lankans are well educated with a high level of literacy for both men and women. This is very important to Taprobane Seafood’s business development. As with education comes understanding, flexibility, aptitude, quickness to learn new skills and ambition. Among the management team these qualities are abundant. This means  that they along with the main body of the staff understand both our short-term and long-term goals, working together to create a tolerant working environment, encouraging diversity and building a sustainable business.


Q: The Indian Ocean is vast and there are lot of marine resources around Sri Lanka. But what is the greatest challenge faced by fishermen and their families in the northern coastline where your harvest is gathered from?

A:  Without a doubt the biggest challenge facing Northern fishermen and their families is the persistent illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by Indian trawlers in Sri Lankan waters. The damage that these vessels inflict in terms of loss of income, damage to fishing nets and boat, loss of employment opportunities and the destruction to the marine environment in the northern and northwestern provinces is appalling. Millions of dollars of potential income is lost each year, by northern fishermen and their families, by workers in seafood factories such as Taprobane and to our company due to persistent IUU fishing by Indian trawlers in Sri Lankan waters. I am hopeful that the new government will continue to arrest these vessels and finally bring about and end to IUU by Indian trawlers in Sri Lanka waters next year.


Q:  Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean where some of the best fish for human consumption can be found, yet the country imports vast amounts of canned fish. Is it possible to reduce this outflow of foreign exchange, while also improving the standards of the local fisheries industry, through supplying Sri Lanka’s demand for canned seafood locally?

A: When we stop the Indian trawlers you will see an immediate increase in the availability of wild caught seafood. The Seafood Exporters Association of Sri Lanka (SEASL) is working with the Ministry of Fisheries to develop a master plan to address these issues. We want to ensure that Sri Lanka’s renewable natural marine resources are being managed properly, harvested sustainably, so that the maximum amount of seafood is available to every person in the country. Not just for the fishing folks, but for the end consumers in Sri Lanka


Q: Sustainability is at the heart of any business initiative anywhere in the world. What are some of the efforts your organizations is expending towards sustaining the business and the environment it operates within?

A:  Our company under the umbrella of the SEASL is an integral part of a fishery improvement project (FIP) implemented with fishing communities and government of Sri Lanka to improve the blue swimming crab fishery in the northern and northwestern provinces, and international agencies. This FIP is on track to become the only internationally certified ‘sustainably managed’ crab fishery in South and South East Asia by the end of 2016. These efforts will ensure the sustainability of blue swimming crab resources for future generations.


Q:  What are some of the corporate social responsibility efforts your organization is pursuing at this time?

A:  If your business is not fully engaged in real and credible efforts to improve the lives of your workers and their communities, then you are not fully contributing to Sri Lanka’s growth. Many will do what is right when asked or forced to, rather than simply doing what’s right, without any fanfare or attention, because it’s their responsibility to do so. Our company has been a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) since 2012. The purpose of ETI is to promote ethical conditions for workers’ rights. Our business aims to make real improvements in working conditions within our supply chain. In Jaffna we opened ‘SARA HOUSE’ which was a joint project between the International Labour Organization of the United Nations (ILO UN) and the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC). SARA HOUSE is a hostel that creates a safe environment for people with disabilities (PWD). TSF is very proud to have PWDs working with in all our operations.


Q:  What, would be your greatest satisfaction in investing in Sri Lanka, which may also inspire other investors from around the world who are interested setting up business here?

A: TSF is committed to doing business, but it also prides itself on being one of a few companies bringing employment and income to the North after the end of the civil conflict. Our view is that the private sector has an important role to play in post conflict recovery. Sri Lanka is a great place to do business. Few other countries can offer so much diversity, in geography, climate, culture, religion, produce and economies of scale. Within a short six hour drive you can see so much that is different in Sri Lanka. I’m not looking for more competition, so I’m not the best person to be encouraging more investment- but Sri Lanka is safe, tolerant and very livable.


Q:  What are your observations on the employability and eagerness to be employed, among the populations of Northern Sri Lanka where regular employment was not common until a short while ago, and post-traumatic stress disorders may also be present?

A:  People need to work to live and prosper. Infrastructure has improved in the north, so it’s easier for staff to get from their villages to our processing plants. If you ask how are they going, the answers are always tragic.  These stories are often hard to listen to and comprehend. Every one of our staff has lost someone during the conflict. Even though things on the outside have improved for most, life is still a daily struggle. 85% of our northern workforce are women, many of whom are war widows and sometimes outcasts within their own communities. They are the sole providers of their families. Our company is committed to providing them with secure jobs, a fair income and dignity so that they and their families can rebuild their lives and those of the future generation.



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